Voters in North Jersey are using the vote-by-mail option in record numbers for the upcoming primary election July 7 despite issues that have plagued the process in the state.
Thirty-three municipalities held the first all-mail election in the state May 12, with turnout reported higher than usual in town’s with competitive races. The mail-only option was a result of health concerns stemming from the coronavirus.
Gov. Phil Murphy, a vote-by-mail advocate, deemed the May election a success and ordered a new model for the pushed back primary set for July 7, a combination of vote-by-mail and in-person.
So far, the option of voting by mail has been a hit with voters.
In Morris County, the Board of Elections has received 39,259 mail-in-ballots as of June 29. The largest number the county previously received was the 2018 General Election with 29,107 received.
As of June 30, the Warren County Clerk’s office had received 12,800. Comparatively, the county received 6,000 Mail-In ballots for the 2108 General Election and approximately 2,800 for the 2019 Primary Election.
The Hudson County Board of Elections has received over 40,000 ballots; the previous high was during the election that fell about a week after Superstorm Sandy when it received approximately 20,000.
According to figures provided by the Sussex County Board of Elections, as of June 28 the county has received back a total of 14,851 mail-In ballots. For comparison, the county recorded 6,081 in the 2016 November general election and just 414 in the 2018 primary that included a race for U.S. Senator.
Essex County officials estimate they have received approximately 60,000 vote by mail ballots, topping the previous record of approximately 25,000 in the 2018 general election.
Bergen and Passaic did not respond to repeated requests to how many votes had been cast by July 1.
Registered voters automatically received a vote-by-mail application ahead of the election. Independent voters who wanted to vote in the primary received an application to register for either party and then received the ballot of their party choice.
Murphy did alter some protocols compared with the May election. At least one in-person polling station will be available in each municipality on July 7, with social distancing and frequent cleaning protocols required at polling locations.
Additionally, the deadline by which votes must be received by a county Board of Elections to be counted as valid was extended from 48 hours after to seven days after polls close. The postmark for mail-in ballots remains unchanged, July 7.
Vote-by-mail has not been without its issues in New Jersey. The most notable was voter fraud charges stemming from the May 12 Paterson municipal election, with Paterson Councilman Michael Jackson, Councilman-elect Alex Mendez and the brother of Councilman Shahin Khalique charged by state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal on June 25. The indictments stem from a state investigation into the city’s six ward-based city council seats, an investigation that remains open, as candidates in some ward races accused each other’s campaigns of stealing voters’ blank ballots and fraudulently filling them out.
Another subject was the rejection of ballots, as over 9% of mailed in ballots in May’s special elections were rejected. A lawsuit by the League of Women Voters of New Jersey and the NAACP New Jersey State Conference was recently settled. The agreement mandates election officials to notify voters whose ballots are slated to be rejected due to signature issues within 24 hours.
Voters will then receive a form to complete and return in which they attest that they submitted the ballot and provide some proof of their identity. They will have until July 23 to do so.
Holding USPS Accountable
Making sure voters receive a ballot has been a ongoing problem for the primary election. Some residents have been receiving their ballots back in the mail, reports of ballots not being deposited into the mailboxes of those in apartment buildings and even a Morris County mail truck catching on fire with ballots are subjects state officials have confronted in the run up to the July primary.
Murphy said his administration has had “spirited” conversations with US Postal Service (USPS) officials to make sure all ballots are delivered in time, as state officials worked with the USPS to design the ballots so that their scanners would accurately read the return address.
In spite of the issues, the first-term Democratic governor said he still has confidence vote-by-mail is a path New Jersey must continue on.
“We’re trying to get the balance …between what is right for the principles of democracy and the access to vote, but also protecting public health,” said the governor at a press briefing June 26. “We think that we’ve got that balance in a good place, but we take none of it for granted and we want to make sure that the Secretary of State, the Department of Elections, are monitoring this very closely as is yours truly.”
Murphy said no decision about the November election would be made until a post mortem is done in regards to the primary election.